Why Pete Hamill Matters
by Christopher Halleron
photos by Craig Wallace Dale
In 2015, just before the centennial of Frank Sinatra’s birth, Pete Hamill appeared at Little City Books to join a stellar panel discussion on the life and times of Hoboken’s famous son. Prior to his appearance, the acclaimed writer was gracious enough to join me for lunch at Leo’s Grandevous for a discussion of his 1998 book, Why Sinatra Matters.
Published just months after Sinatra’s death, Why Sinatra Matters wove the parallel existences of Frank Sinatra and Pete Hamill—two scruffy kids from backstreet immigrant neighborhoods who emerged, seemingly inoculated against inadequacy, and rose to the top of the heap in their respective crafts. During an era when ethnicity was identity, these guys took it upon themselves to decide they no longer gave a damn about any of that. Their plan was to just keep going until someone told them to stop.
Of course no one told them to stop—because they were so good at what they did.
As comfortable in a dark saloon at last call as they were attending state dinners at the White House, both Sinatra and Hamill listened as much as they talked—in doing so expanded their own worldview through the lens of others. They stood steadfast against all manner of injustice. They loved, lost, and loved again. They respected their mothers, despised hypocrites, and fought a lot of fights—winning some, losing others.
Some of Sinatra’s most public fights were with his second wife, Ava Gardner.
“You know Ava, she knocked him on his ass, with a lot of help from him himself. But he got up,” Hamill told me, “and I’m pretty sure that this had something to do with Hoboken, and the Hoboken nature. Because it was certainly true in Brooklyn where I grew up—if you were knocked on your ass, you had to get up. These were people who got up.”
Our conversation later touched on Sinatra’s authenticity, of which Hamill said, “Most of the writers I know and most of the performers I met here or there—they were not competitors. They didn’t say they wanted to ‘be better than Bing Crosby.’ They said, ‘I want to be the best version of Pete Hamill that ever lived.’ Not the best column writer, the best me—and then I can trust it. I can trust that I’m not living off some other guy’s plate, you know, and go to bed at night.”
When Sinatra passed, many words were written about him. Few did him justice, but Frank’s daughter is said to have cherished Hamill’s account.
“Tina let me know that my book was the best she had ever read about her father,” said Hamill. “She has a sense of irony, and she remembers certain things from Frank.”
Why Sinatra Matters could just as easily be Why Pete Hamill Matters—masterfully written to not only explore the life of Frank Sinatra, but also illustrate the impact he had on an impressionable young Hamill.
Living off no one’s plate but his own, Pete Hamill was the Frank Sinatra of writers. He was a raw talent, with a sturdy chin and a tremendous heart. He clawed his way onto the scene and never stopped evolving—consistently elevating his craft, and leaving others to marvel at his delivery.
Now Pete Hamill has passed. Many words will be written about him. Few will do him justice.
Your best bet is to just read his own…